DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The operative word for NASCAR in 2014 is change. Big and small.
Small: Adding a half-inch on spoiler on the back in plate races at Daytona and Talladega to make the cars more stable.
Big: Blowing up the points system again.
That hasn’t officially happened yet, but as the great poet Bob Dylan once sang, a change is gonna come.
“January is going to be full of announcements, so we’ll wait,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said Thursday during the first day of NASCAR pre-season testing. “...stay tuned.”
NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France said recently that he wants to incentivize winning, but how that translates into a new business model is unclear.
No doubt the NASCAR Nation awaits the final word as we move close to the start of the season next month, highlighted by the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23. The Chase system has been tweaked three times since it was implemented in 2004; four times if you count the inclusion of Jeff Gordon to make it a baker’s dozen after all the shenanigans that went on in Richmond.
What comes next is impossible to predict, but the chance of blowing things up again takes NASCAR down a precarious road. It’s always been a different beast than the ball and stick sports, which tweaks things now and then but traditionally is resistant to major change.
NASCAR is more of an ebb and flow, dictated by the unique nature of hiring what amounts to 43 independent contractors every weekend, some of them with teammates, others as solo artists. Things can get mucked up in a hurry, as we saw in Richmond when Clint Bowyer spun out on purpose so that Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. could slide into the Chase.
It’s impossible to legislate all of that, much less prove it, unless you press the “dumb” button as the boys from MWR did by broadcasting their intentions over in-car radios.
NASCAR did the right thing by bouncing Truex from the Chase, but it needs to be careful not to over-correct things trying to find the right competitive balance.
Good luck with all of that.
“Quite honestly you can jack around with that points system from now on and I don’t think you’re going to change the outcome,” said Darrell Waltrip, one of the most authoritative voice in the NASCAR garage as a former driver and now an analyst on Fox.
“Have you lost your mind? This is a professional sport. We don’t need a bunch of gimmicks.”
Waltrip contends, and I agree, that the higher-ups in the sport are overly-concerned about all the chatter going on in social media. Twitter has offered a great way for everyone to interact in 140-character increments, but much of that chit-chat is driven by reactionary nonsense.
“I’ve never seen a sport where everybody every day wants to change something,” Waltrip said. “Everybody’s got an idea.”
Here are a few from my cheap seat:
Switch up the dates and venues on the regular season schedule. It’s become a mundane drone of 36 races. Shake things up in the Chase, too. Add a road race into the mix. Stick the fall Talladega race somewhere else on the regular-season schedule. The restrictor plate madness is too big of a wild card to include in the Chase.
Feel free to shake and stir, but not to the point where it all spills over into a bunch of gimmicky nonsense.
“If it changes perception and pulls it in the right direction, awesome,” said six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “If it gives us great story lines to talk about and write about, awesome. There is no down side in that.
“But I think the big picture looking forward is format changes and qualifying is going to be far different than anything we’ve ever seen. I think that is where the magic lies is in format changes.”
Fingers crossed for magical mojo, and no gimmicky concoctions.